Powerful, honest & intimate

Photograph exhibit explores identity, sexuality

Jennifer DeCarlo | Punto di vista

Remember when I moved in you

Dallas (Photo by Jess T. Dugan)

Dallas (Photo by Jess T. Dugan)

The holy dove was moving too

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

The words of Leonard Cohen are an echo for many of us, and give fitting tone to the work of Jess T. Dugan, a queer photographer working out of the Chicago area.

Dugan’s work, now on view at jdc Fine Art as “Every breath we drew,” is also included in the San Diego Museum of Art’s “Double Portraits” exhibition, currently on display through Sept. 8. It is powerful and engaging,exploratory and substantive, honest and, above all, intimate.

Dugan uses portraiture to explore constructions of identity and sexuality. Her sitters come from all walks of life: some part of the LGBT community and others are allies.

Dugan has often focused on transgender individuals on the female-to-male spectrum, and also highlights herself in the work through several self-portraits.

While we all take it for granted that identity is a construction – an ever-evolving result of our own personal history – Dugan seeks to show how sexuality too is constructed. The work explores how identity is formed, sexuality and desire is expressed, and personal connections are made, but at its heart is humanity: that common denominator that unifies us all, and that obvious yet illusive reality for which we struggle.

June 26 marked a major victory for humankind; the Supreme Court struck key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act down. The date is eerily close to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, honored July 3, and 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, his words again ring with fresh meaning. Our nation has remembered its “dedication to the proposition that all … are created equal.”

Jess T. Dugan's "Erica and Krista," 2012 (Courtesy jdc Fine Art)

Jess T. Dugan’s “Erica and Krista,” 2012 (Courtesy jdc Fine Art)

With as far as we have come toward total equality – as individuals, as a community and as a nation – there remain barriers to overcome and hearts to win.

Enter Dugan’s work. It is poignant, it is critical and it is real. It belongs to our time, and its greatest strength is its ability to use a language of intimacy to put us into a position to recognize and celebrate an almost spiritual unity.

The work itself is quiet and seductive. A warm glow of light washes over figures in shallow-ground. The figures are very close to us, and they often look directly at us out of the frame, inviting us to engage with them on a highly personal level.

We are brought to the most intimate of places, as Dugan often photographs her subjects in their homes or bedrooms. Intimacy is not just felt; it is also understood. We share not only a space, but also a moment with Dugan’s figures. The works are rich and charged, lush and full, and her palate is so vivid you think if you touched it, it would leave its mark on your hands.

These works reveal as much about us as they do about the people depicted within the frame. We become aware of our own learned, almost automatic desire to make assumptions about the people around us.

For some, this may involve judgments, but for many it is simply an effort to position our self in a relational way. We do look into the faces of Dugan’s subjects and may wonder male or female, and straight or gay, but by the time we are aware of our own questioning, we are already seduced into the unique humanity of the person before us.

Jess T. Dugan's "Self-portrait (muscle shirt)" 2013 (Courtesy jdc Fine Art)

Jess T. Dugan’s “Self-portrait (muscle shirt)” 2013 (Courtesy jdc Fine Art)

This is where the power in the work exists. We lose our desire and ability to categorize people based on gender or sexuality, and instead find ourselves enchanted by the simple beauty of a gaze and the feeling of being close to another person.

In this space we can only bask in the celebration of our plurality and our commonality: Hallelujah.

“Every breath we drew” is currently on display at jdc Fine Art, located at 2400 Kettner Blvd. #208, through Aug. 31. “Double Potraits,” is also now on display at the San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado in Balboa Park through Sept. 8.


Editor’s note: Jennifer DeCarlo is the director of jdc Fine Art, which is hosting the exhibit “Every breath we drew.”

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